British troops began a long-term deployment to Estonia on Saturday as Germany’s intelligence chief warned Russia had doubled its military presence on its Western border.
An advanced contingent of 120 British soldiers landed at Estonia’s Amari airbase late on Friday night as part of a new Nato deployment designed to deter Russia from attempting a repeat of its invasions of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the Baltic.
Eight hundred British troops with Challenger 2 tanks, AS90 self-propelled guns, and Warrior armoured vehicles, will be based in the town of Tapa, 80 miles from the Russian border, from next month.
The force, made up of one armoured infantry support group based on 5th Battalion The Rifles Battlegroup and tanks from the Queens Royal Hussars, will be joined by an armoured infantry company and artillery elements from the French Marines.
A Danish contingent will replace the French in 2018. The deployment is part of what Nato is calling an “enhanced forward presence,” designed to reassure eastern allies and deter potential Russian aggression.
"In the face of an increasingly assertive Russia, Nato is stepping up its commitment to collective defence," said Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, as the first British troops deployed.
They will take part in a series of exercises alongside the Estonian armed forces and in larger, regional drills coordinated with other Nato contingents deployed to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The UK is also contributing 150 troops to the US-battle group in Poland.
Troops have been warned Russian agents may try to disrupt the deployment by luring them into compromising positions when off duty.
Mikk Marran, the head of Estonia's intelligence agency, told the Times last month troops could be targeted by "honey traps" or drawn into staged pub brawls, or see their social media accounts hacked for blackmail in an effort to discredit British soldiers.
Their arrival came as Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), warned of a major Russian military build up in the region.
“The Russian threat has intensified," Mr Kahl said in an interview with Der Speigel on Saturday. "Russia has doubled its fighting power on its Western border, which cannot be considered as defensive against the West," he said.
Russia announced the creation of two new infantry divisions on its Western Military District, which borders the Baltics, last year, in what it described as a response to a Nato build up in the region.
It has also deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, advanced missile carrying corvettes, and aircraft to the region.
While the tanks and other vehicles brought by the British, US, German, and Canadian-led battle groups will plug a key hole in the host countries’ military capabilities, some experts have questioned whether it amounts to a credible deterrent.
The four battle groups amount only to a single heavy brigade.
A report by the Rand Corporation in 2016 estimated that at least three such brigades would be needed to deter a possible Russian attack in the Baltic region.
The same report estimated Russia can muster 22 battalions from its Western military district, which it said would be “more than enough” to overwhelm current Baltic defences.
Russia has repeatedly denied harbouring any intentions to attack the Baltic States, although Estonian and other officials say Moscow has run large-scale war game simulating such an assault.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary General, said the alliance sees "no imminent danger" of a conventional military assault in the Baltic Sea region.
Mr Stoltenberg said the 28-country alliance "is worried" about Russia's actions and possible intentions, but added that "it is important that we do not dramatize the situation."
Speaking in Copenhagen on Friday, Mr Stoltenberg said although Nato was on near constant alert for terrorism and cyber attacks, it did not see anything indicating “a conventional military assault against a Nato country, and not even the Baltic countries."